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Microsoft's "monkeys" find first zero-day exploit
Robert Lemos, SecurityFocus 2005-08-08

Microsoft 's experimental Honeymonkey project has found almost 750 Web pages that attempt to load malicious code onto visitors' computers and detected an attack using a vulnerability that had not been publicly disclosed, the software giant said in a paper released this month.

Known more formerly as the Strider Honeymonkey Exploit Detection System, the project uses automated Windows XP clients to surf questionable parts of the Web looking for sites that compromise the systems without any user interaction. In the latest experiments, Microsoft has identified 752 specific addresses owned by 287 Web sites that contain programs able to install themselves on a completely unpatched Windows XP system.

Honeymonkeys, a name coined by Microsoft, modify the concept of honeypots--computers that are placed online and monitored to detect attacks.

"The honeymonkey client goes (to malicious Web sites) and gets exploited rather than waiting to get attacked," said Yi-Min Wang, manager of Microsoft's Cybersecurity and Systems Management Research Group. "This technique is useful for basically any company that wants to find out whether their software is being exploited this way by Web sites on the Internet."

The experimental system, which SecurityFocus first reported on in May, is one of the software giant's many initiatives to make the Web safer for users of the Windows operating system. Online fraudsters have become more savvy about fooling users, from more convincing phishing attacks to targeting individuals who likely have access to high-value data. Some statistical evidence has suggested that financial markets are holding software makers such as Microsoft responsible for such problems.

The software giant has not focused on any single strategy to secure its customers. A year ago, the company released a major update, known as Service Pack 2, to its Windows XP operating system--an update that focused almost exclusively on security. The company has also started working closer with the independent security researchers and hackers that find the flaws in its operating system and offering rewards for information on the virus writers that have historically attacked its software.

The honeymonkey project, first discussed at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Symposium on Security and Privacy in Oakland, California in May, is the latest attempt by the software giant to detect threats to its customers before the threats become widespread. The honeymonkeys consist of virtual machines running different patch levels of Windows. The "monkey" programs browse a variety of Web sites looking for sites that attempt to exploit browser vulnerabilities.

Security researchers have given the initiative high marks.

"In terms of detection capabilities, it's a really elegant hack," said Dan Kaminsky, principal security researcher for Doxpara Research. "The antivirus model -- scan for dangerous patterns -- can't find previously unknown attacks. ... No, the best way to find out if a web page, if executed, would attack the browser is to spawn a browser and let it execute potentially hostile code."

New tactics like honeymonkeys will be a useful way to stave off the dangers of the Internet, said Lance Spitzner, president of the Honeynet Project, which creates software and tools for administering false networks of systems that appear to be vulnerable targets.

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